Dandy Defined: Who They Were and What Did They Wear

“Dandy” was first used between the 1770s and 1780s, but the idea of a dandy began long before with the Greeks, who referred to him in the following fashion:

“A ‘vain and shallow fellow.’ The Romans … named him a ‘trifler,’ a ‘silly fellow, &c.’ The Italians declared him a ‘loiterer.’ The French proclaimed him a ‘noddy or ninny.’ And, finally, the English, after bestowing upon him two names, ‘dandiprat’ and ‘dandy,’ defined him, according to Webster, as ‘a male of the human species, who dresses himself like a doll, and who carries his character on his back.'”[1]

By the Regency Era, the famously glib but elegantly charming George Bryan “Beau” Brummell represented the word dandy. He created simple male fashions, shaved his face several times a day, and wore perfectly tailored clothing — immaculately pressed linen shirts, intricately knotted cravats, and full-length trousers. He gained an iconic reputation and was considered an original. However, before him there was much conjecture as to where the word dandy originated.

Dandy Beau Brummell

Beau Brummell. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A person known only by the initials J.L. wrote a letter in 1819 to Mr. Urban of the Gentlemen’s Magazine offering a possible explanation for the word dandy. J.L. noted that the source of the word was uncertain and suggested that it was somehow related to “dandipart” or “dandiprat” and that both words were terms of “reproach and ridicule.” To illustrate, he noted dandipart was defined in Colgrave’s Dictionary of 1650. The definition described a dandy as a “curry-comb, slender little fellow, or dwarf.”[2] In Torriano’s Italian Dictionary of 1688 dandy meant “a dwarf, pretty little man, or mannikin.”[3] Finally, Dr. Samuel Johnson defined dandy in his dictionary of 1755 describing him in the following way:

“A little fellow, urchin; a word sometimes used in fondness, sometimes contempt; and … [derived] from Dandin, a noddy or ninny.”[4]

If nothing else dandipart meant something “diminutive,” as did dandiprat, whose definition was based on two books from the 1600s. One of these books was John Bulwer’s Artificial Changeling — a study in comparative cultural anthropology — from 1653. In it, dandiprat was described:

“Sometimes with lacings and with swaiths so strait, For want of space we have a Dandiprat.”[5]

John Bulwer, Courtesy of Wikipedia

John Bulwer. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The other suggestion asserted dandiprat was a small coin minted during Henry VII’s reign. However, no such coin was every found and may have, in fact, been the farthing that was minted at that time because it was “very minute.” Although none of these explanations seem to explain the origins of the word, it does show there was a negative connotation surrounding it.

If the origins of the word were obscure, this did not stop people from describing a dandy. One description of a dandy relied on a prosaic, common-place phrase: the dandy “is a man, who pays extra attention to his person, his manners, his dress, and his exterior generally.”[6] It was also noted that similar to others who were extraordinary, the dandy “provokes the envy and spite of all the mediocre specimens of the race.”[7]

This was also supposedly why satirists and lexicographers unfairly attacked the dandy and were even “hostile” towards him. Sometimes writers asserted that the dandy’s attackers were not “the cleanliest, best garbed, most graceful-mannered, and most orderly people in the world.”[8] The writer then offered Dr. Johnson — who was known for his nervous tics, odd gestures, and unusual mannerisms — as an example and went further by asking that although the dandy may “be finical and effeminate … are not … these traits preferable … to brutality, coarseness and awkwardness?”[9]

Dandy with a Parasol, Author's Collection

Dandy with a Parasol. Author’s collection.

There were several other descriptions given of the dandy. William Makepeace Thackeray, an English novelist of the nineteenth century, described the British dandy as a man with “superb self-confidence.” The Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle wrote:

“A Dandy is a Clothes-wearing Man … whose trade, office, and existence consists in the wearing of Clothes. Every faculty of his soul, spirit, purse, and person is heroically consecreated to this one object, the wearing of Clothes wisely and well: so that as others dress to live, he lives to dress.”[10]

Scribners Monthly also offered an unflattering view of the dandy. They maintained:

“[The dandy] never ceases to need sympathy and recognition … He must have birth, fortune, good looks…[and] as a rule, be young … [because] along with the unhesitating pride … of possession which is a characteristic of the dandy, there goes a secure faith that his good fortune is the result of his own merit … [and] there is one other quality … This quality is a certain native self-conceit … [but also] as a rule, [he should] not be a man of ability … [but should have a mind] without thought and almost without traits.”[11]

Dandy at his toilette

“Dandy at His Toilette,” published in 1818. Courtesy of British Museum.

Many people mentioned Brummell as the “it” dandy in London. However, when it came to the last dandy, people claim that honor goes to Alfred d’Orsay, a French amateur artist, who died on 4 August 1852. He was well-known in London and Paris and his sister, the Duchess de Guiche, was friends with the Georgiana Cavendish and the French socialite, Juliette Récamier. D’Orsay eventually married Harriet, the daughter of Marguerite Power, Countess of Blessington, but then divorced Harriet and lived openly with his mother-in-law in London and then Paris. His dandified appearance was routinely mentioned with one description stating:

“The Marquis D’Horsay was, indeed, ‘the glass of fashion, and the mould of form.’ From the colour and tie of the kerchief which adorned his neck, to the spurs ornamenting the heels of his patent boots, he was the original for countless copyists, particularly and collectively. Even the brow which the ducal coronet occasionally pressed, was proud to wear the hat imitated from the model, which every aspiring Tittlebat Titmouse of the age strove to copy is gossamer. The hue and cut of his many faultless coasts, the turn of his closely fitting inexpressibles [trousers], the shade of his gloves, the knot of his scar, were studied by the motley multitude with greater interest and avidity than objects more profitable and worthy of their regard … Nor did the beard that flourished luxuriantly upon the delicate and nicely-chiselled features of the Marquis escape the universal imitation. … Wristbands, both false and real, were turned over cuffs of every dye and texture, and in short, from the most essential article of the modish lion’s dress to the most trifling, not an item was left confined to its pristine state of originality. And this general monomania was not restricted only to ‘the fashion which adorned his person. The style of his equipage, the richly ornamented harness, the dainty stepping of his cavalier horse, the very boots of the tiger-cub in attendance in the rear, were all objects of envy and close imitation.”[12]

Alfred D’Orsay. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] Bizarre, Volume 6, 1855, p. 148.
  • [2] The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 89, 1819, p. 7.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Johnson, Samuel, A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755, p. x.
  • [5] Transactions of the American Philological Association, Volumes 24-26, 1893, p. 132.
  • [6] Bizarre, p. 149.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 150.
  • [10] Caryle, Thomas, Sartor Resartus, 1831, p. 188.
  • [11] Scribners Monthly, Vol. 21, 1881, p. 539.
  • [12] Mills, John, D’Horsay, 1902, p. 2-4.

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